For the past two years, I've been living in California, and I've been worrying about water almost continuously.
Coming from the East Coast, I've seen a drought or two, and I've never been a water waster. (For example, my extra egg- and tea-boiling water has always gone to my plants, not down the drain.) But moving West during a headline-making drought turned me into a true water miser. I've saved the shower-warming water and used it for my toilet tank, which has been flushed only a couple times a day. I've ferried used dishwater out to the garden for the succulents, and I've made sure to drink every ounce of water left in my refillable bottle.
But for the past two months, it has rained — and rained and rained and rained. I've loved it, because raindrops streaking my windows is writing weather, and because I adore how green everything gets when there's plenty of water to go around. I don't mind hiking in the mud or wearing a waterproof layer to run in. (After all, cold rain on warm cheeks is a beautiful feeling.)
All this water pouring from the heavens has eased my tension: For the first time since I moved to the East Bay, I can start to relax about having enough water. I'll never waste it, but maybe I can flush the toilet a little more often. Due to the epic rains here at my elevation, and snows in the mountains, the five-year drought that predated my arrival here appears to be over. Reservoirs are at capacity and some are even higher than that — the most dramatic example being the water held behind the Oroville Dam, which has threatened possible collapse in recent weeks.
Is the drought over?
We won't be able to say that the drought's done for sure until the final measurements are taken in April. We can credit the change to a fortuitous shift in the atmospheric rivers that govern where water gets picked up and dropped off.
NPR weather reporter Kirk Siegler joined the state's chief snow surveyor, Frank Gehrke, at Lake Tahoe at 7,000 feet to take measurements this week. "Gehrke and his team take manual measurements here and combine it with electronic data from monitoring sites across High Sierra and they hand that over to reservoir operators and farms and cities downstream in the form of a forecast to know just how much water they'll get out of this snow in coming months," Siegler explained to NPR.
Those measurements are heartening: It has snowed so much in the Sierras that it's a whopping 185 percent of the average. That snowpack makes up one-third of the water that will slow-release over the spring and summer as it melts.
That "slow-release" part is important. "A big question is what's going to happen when all this snow melts, and if we were to get a big warming trend all at once, that's a lot more water and run off coming down," Siegler said.
We'll have to wait and see, of course. And it's important that we keep up our water-conserving ways, not only because wasting fresh water should always be avoided, no matter where you live, but also because the long-term outlook for California is one that's likely to include more and longer dry spells. California Gov. Jerry Brown is going to wait until that April measurement before he calls for an end to water conservation measures, which is a smart move. We should all get used to not taking fresh water for granted.
While we can all be thankful that five years of drought may be behind us, who knows what will happen next year? It's important to make smart decisions now so the next crisis won't be so intense.